During a green-screen studio shoot on the south side of Atlanta last June, Ladd Ehlinger Jr., a 43-year-old NASA animator turned independent filmmaker, was behind his $125,000 Hollywood-grade Red camera while an actress wearing black hot pants—and not much else—stomped out the pins and needles from her sleepy legs. "The gal was a real trouper," he recalls of the making of "Give Us Your Cash, Bitch," an ad aimed at California Democratic congressional candidate Janice Hahn. (Like Hahn, who'd go on to win the special election, the actress-cum-stripper bore a blonde shag.) "We were sticking dollar bills in her shorts, and her legs kept falling asleep from all the butt-shaking maneuvers, so we bent her over some apple crates. I thought of the ass as a character. It wanted to be seen."
Ehlinger had already demonstrated a flair for producing politically charged YouTube hits: "Nancy Pelosi, Wicked Witch of the Left," Barney Frank dancing the "Barney Shuffle." But those were love letters by comparison. One week after shooting the spot—which also features the rappers Uncle Head and Kue Dog of Splack Pack brandishing automatic weapons, going face-to-ass with their costar, and lip-synching the titular lyric ("Give me your caaaaash, bitch/ So we can shoot up the street!")—Ehlinger posted it to YouTube, then tweeted the link to pundits like Keith Olbermann and Politico's Ben Smith. Within three days it had racked up half a million views and reams of viral vitriol. "[It's] so stunningly sexist and racist that it verges on pornography," wrote U.S. News & World Report. Even the campaign manager for Craig Huey, Hahn's GOP opponent, called the ad "highly offensive." But to Ehlinger's mischievous way of thinking, it was a necessary provocation. "Huey's strategy was to hope that the Dems didn't notice there was an election," he says. "I have a real problem with the Republican establishment being such pussies. They're terrible at fighting back."
Despite his proud outsider status (he's an independent libertarian agitator), Ehlinger is perhaps best viewed as the Grand Old Party's new, page-view-baiting id. According to Andrew Rasiej, the founder of the nonpartisan Personal Democracy Forum, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics, "The election coming up is the first where the two parties will have parity in the online arms race." After getting outmatched by Obama's superior social-media stagecraft in 2008, Republicans had a come-to-Jesus moment in more ways than one, and now they're embracing a new guard of Internet-savvy, Hollywood-inspired auteurs who are exploiting the viral-messaging potential of YouTube. In the run-up to 2012, Rasiej predicts, "the Republicans will be willing to do crazier stuff, and Obama will play it safe."
Like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, these emerging GOP operatives are rising from the ashes of the 2008 campaign, when "it was Old vs. New—literally," says Lucas Baiano, the 23-year-old filmmaker whose de facto campaign-kick-off ad for Tim Pawlenty, "Courage to Stand," continues to reverberate with party strategists. "It was imperative for the Republicans to rebrand themselves. We needed to energize and inspire the party. That's why I tend to go a more cinematic route, because it's a formula that really connects with people."
If Ehlinger is the id, Baiano is the superego. A skinny-suit-wearing Michael Bay wannabe, Baiano got his break in 2008 when he made a movie-trailer-style video on spec for Hillary Clinton's campaign after puckishly pitching the idea to Bill at a book signing. (The video serves as a teaser for Lucky Strike, Baiano's 2010 feature-length documentary about how he got the career-making Clinton gig.) After Hillary bowed out, Baiano switched sides, becoming director of visual media and film for the Republican Governors Association. "Everything's a stepping stone for me," Baiano says. "It's important to rebrand yourself, to stay ahead of the curve." At the RGA, Baiano honed his summer-blockbuster aesthetic—soaring music, lightning-fast cuts—with a video series called "Remember November" that helped make New Jersey governor Chris Christie a player on the national stage. And although some of his superiors at the RGA were reportedly irked by his slick persona, Baiano's talent won him the Pawlenty gig. "Courage to Stand," released in January, splices iconic imagery of American accomplishments (the Iwo Jima flag-raising, Dr. King on the march) with footage of Pawlenty looking every bit the commander in chief as press cameras pop and military jets roar overhead. "Wow," exclaimed Stephen Colbert after cueing up the video on his show. "[Pawlenty] is clearly running for president of the next Transformers movie." (Baiano welcomes the Michael Bay comparisons—the schlockbuster director is a master of what Baiano calls Hollywood's "flawless formula.")
Colbert may have been mocking the dissonance between Baiano's pyrotechnics and the milquetoast candidate they were meant to serve, but he found the video captivating enough to feature on his program. Baiano had succeeded in bringing sex appeal to an otherwise limp candidate, transforming him, if only for a moment, into a full-blown Republican celebrity. And we haven't seen the last of the wunderkind. Barely 24 hours after Pawlenty quit the Republican-nomination race, Baiano was already fielding offers. "I've had quite a few individuals approach me," he says. "I'm going to want to stay involved and be an influence."
That's already happening. In a recent article for The Daily Caller titled "2012: The Year of the Web Video," Vincent Harris of Harris Media wrote, "My firm has received many calls from people asking for 'Pawlenty-esque' videos." (Baiano's impact has even spread to his native Canada, where the conservative prime minister ripped off "Courage to Stand" during his reelection bid—and won.) All this represents a sea change from the last election, when the Republicans' slickest move was an ostensibly defamatory pairing of Obama and Paris Hilton: the "Celebrity" ad. Although it found approval with the GOP's aging base, it ultimately made John McCain seem clueless in the eyes of younger voters. Since then, Republicans have doubled down on the policy front while enlisting these new-school ad-makers to broaden the party's appeal—through a change in packaging, not in platform. "Celebritizing candidates is simply an acknowledgment of the media-saturated culture we live in," says the renowned GOP strategist Mark McKinnon. "And winning campaigns is all about adapting."